East Texas Reds

I love the Texas Gulf Coast. I just got back from fishing in Port Mansfield, a speck of a town about 40 miles north of the Rio Grande.

My trip went like this: Fly into Houston to test a boat, drive four hours South to Port Aransas to check in with colleagues for a work event, then wake up at six the next morning and drive three hours to Port Mansfield to fish for redfish. The state is so big you have to drive aeons to get anywhere.

The next morning we fished with Blue Cyclone Charters (bluecyclonefishing@yahoo.com). And who guided us around the bay but Roy Lee Evans, the Blue Cyclone himself. He earned the nickname because, “In my younger days I liked to fight, and I was pretty good at it.”

Roy Lee runs a 20-foot skiff that has absolutely no freeboard. The idea is to step on and off the boat to wade fish. Texas anglers like to run to a flat, then hop in and stalk fish on foot. Running this boat is like running a giant surfboard with an outboard, there’s nothing holding you in. It’s disconcerting. But the boat fishes shallow, and does it well.

The 20-knot wind stirred up the water and prevented any chance of site fishing, so we actually stayed in the boat, or on it really, and drifted over shallow flats, blind-casting soft plastics to where we thought the reds should be. It was like drifting a rip for stripers, but in 8-10 inches of water. Ol’ Roy Lee knew what he was doing. We caught a decent redfish on almost every drift.

Fishing for reds in Texas is different than fishing for them in Florida, where the fish are harder to find and harder to fool. Maybe because the fishing pressure just isn’t there. These fish get worked hard, but not day after day after day. In the summer, anglers from other parts of the state come down, but, as Roy Lee put it, most of the year “The population’s 500, but I bet you couldn’t count 500 between people and seagulls.” And it’s far away from almost everywhere.

Still, hooking a redfish is the same. I love the sound of the drag humming as the fish makes its first run. They’re not speedsters or acrobats or anything like that, just pure power runners. And, as far as my temperament goes, I’d rather hook a redfish than watch another @#%%!!! bonefish swim away, mocking me.

I’m sitting in my home office, snowed in by a blizzard, which puts the exclamation point on this sentence: The local fishing season is over! My only recourse now is to surf cast into a nearby powerplant outflow when it gets REALLY cold. The stripers go there to stay warm, but the angler certainly doesn’t. Luckily, I am going fishing in Texas next week for speckled trout and redfish.

Right now, I am looking through my photo album to remember some of the better days I’ve had this year. I’m looking at the picture of a peacock bass I caught in South Florida just west of Ft. Lauderdale. I caught it walking the shores of a small residential lake system with my five-weight fly rod. I caught it a using chartreuse and white streamer fly I tied with synthetic super-hair for just this occasion. I caught 22 others that day.

This is noteworthy because, two years ago, a significant number of peacock bass in this area died in a cold snap. The peacocks, imported from South America, can’t stand the water to dip below 70 degrees. (I think. I’ll have to fact check the actual temp.) That almost never happens in South Florida near Ft. Lauderdale and points South, but it did then.

I started fishing for the peacocks in 1999, when a friend introduced me to them on a work trip. At the time, we had success catching two or three here and there, but we were fishing for them as we would largemouth. Going out at dawn and dusk, using poppers. Then on one trip, I visited a local fly shop, where the owner told me to fish during the heat of the day, using streamers with chartreuse or bright green coloring. He sold me a few snook flies. I went in the heat of an early-fall Florida day, when the temperatures hit the low 90s. I cast one of these snook flies near a drainage pipe on one of these lakes, and BAM! I had a three-pound peacock on the first cast. I caught 30 within one hour. I hooked fish despite myself–If I missed a hookset, two or three other peacocks would be following behind to scoop up the fly. I went the next day at the same time and caught around 20, the biggest about five pounds.

These peacocks are the best freshwater fish I’ve ever challenged on my five-weight. They’re like smallmouth, only more aggressive, and they jump and somersault all over the place. Plus, I could fish for them for free–no need for a guide or a boat. I started bringing my five-weight whenever I traveled to South Florida. Then the cold snap hit, and I didn’t catch one for two years.

But this August, I tried again and, thankfully, the fish had come back. I didn’t catch any big ones. Most were scrappy little guys who went airborne but didn’t put a big bend in the rod. But they’re back. I can’t wait to get after them next year when these fish have more weight to them. As long as another cold snap doesn’t hit South Florida. Hoping, as I sit here in a blizzard.

Here is a an article I wrote for Boating Magazine on fishing in Cuba. I am on staff there as an editor, but I am not the fishing editor. (This site is my personal blog and has nothing to do with the magazine whatsoever, and all views expressed here are mine.) Anyway, as background, I went to Cuba in May of 2000 to cover the 50th Annual Hemingway International Billfish Tournament, and to do a little back country fly fishing for baby tarpon. The whole trip was one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had, and the tarpon pictured in the article, though diminutive, might be the coolest fish I’ve ever caught.